Rebecca Solnit’s “Men Explain Things to Me”: why mansplaining is more than a buzzword

“You Read Like a Girl” Book Review Series

By Madison TeuscherThe bright blue cover of "Men Explain Things to Me" by Rebecca Solnit.

The abundance of rape and violence against women is almost never treated as a human rights issue, let alone a crisis, or even a pattern. It takes very little inference to recognize that the violence and assault that women face is an extremely prevalent issue that needs to be addressed immediately. Men Explain Things to Me is a provocative collection of short stories and essays that address the core of the gender inequality issue: a deeply rooted craving for men to have control over women’s lives. Through honest examination of case studies and cultural attitudes, Rebecca Solnit demonstrates that the incidents that are so often seen as isolated events are all, in fact, very connected and illustrate a much larger social problem.

One of the soaring successes of Solnit’s collection of essays is the effortless grace with which it presents gruesome and heavy topics. I felt like I was speaking with a wise colleague, or perhaps my best friend’s cool older sister. The book begins with the title essay, “Men Explain Things to Me”, in which she introduces the idea of “mansplaining”: men explaining things to women in a condescending or patronizing way. Solnit recounts a posh party in a luxury cabin in Aspen. One man began asking her about her numerous book publications, and when she mentioned her latest book about Eadweard Muybridge, he immediately began recalling the “very important Muybridge book that came out this year”. It took multiple interruptions and comments for him to realize that this “very important” book was her book. She continues to discuss the slippery slope of silencings. The presumption that women’s thoughts and emotions are somehow invalid crushes young women into silence by indicating, in the same way that street harassment does, that this is not their world and that the truth does not belong to them. When we tell women they are not reliable witnesses to their own lives, we annihilate their very real and valid experiences, opinions, and accomplishments.

Solnit discusses the slew of excuses used in an attempt to justify the growing problem of rape and violence against women–because the economy is bad (though, men also murder women when the economy is good), mental problems, intoxicants, and, for athletes, head injuries. In one case, the explanation was that lead exposure is responsible for a lot of our violence, even when both men and women are exposed and men commit most of the violence.

In a country where 1 in 4 women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, and where, in one year alone, 300,000 college women are raped, we are no longer looking at incidents that have no connection. The ready availability of guns is a major issue, but despite the availability to both men and women, murder is still a crime that is committed by men 87.6% of the time. In addition, men committed 98.9% of the forcible rapes charged in 2011. It would be foolish to see these statistics and claim that they are isolated events. Nearly 99 percent is not an anomaly.

A black-and-white image of author Rebecca Solnit.
Author Rebecca Solnit

Solnit’s engaging book presents issues in a way that makes the reader question the system of control that men operate within. From rape, to murder, to online harassment, to cat-calling, the ultimate statement the offender is making is “I have the right to control you.” In one example, the ex-girlfriend of Mason Mayer (brother of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer) testified in court, “He ripped out my earrings, tore my eyelashes off, while spitting in my face and telling me how unlovable I am… I was on the ground in the fetal position, and when I tried to move, he squeezed both knees tighter into my sides to restrain me and slapped me.” According to San Fransisco Chronicle reporter Vivian Ho, “Mayer slammed her head onto the floor repeatedly and pulled out clumps of her hair, telling her that the only way she was leaving the apartment alive was if he drove her to the Golden Gate Bridge, ‘where you can jump off or I will push you off.’” Mason Mayer was given probation.

We are taken on a journey throughout Solnit’s enlightening, horrifying, and invigorating tales, ultimately concluding that we are surrounded by women being silenced and punished for claiming they have a voice, power and right to participate. Violence against women is ultimately a control issue: the reproductive rights of women are constantly under attack (what a scandal that women might have the right to control their own bodies!), rapes are investigated at an appallingly lackadaisical rate, and our local and federal leaders spout ideas that have no grounding in true fact in order to micro-manage lives that are not their own.

Men Explain Things to Me is a fresh, informative, and provocative read that looks at the issue of gender inequality and violence against women from many different angles. Rather than looking at one perspective, Solnit engages the reader in small-scale case studies, and shows that these events are all interconnected to create a much larger issue. This quick read is unafraid in its takes, and leaves the reader wanting more. This book will remain in my collection for years to come, a reminder of the work that has been done in the name of women, and the thousands of miles left to go.

Read the book for yourself by checking it out from the library or by buying a copy for yourself.

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